Since Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner took office, the budget shortfall facing city hall for 2017 just keeps getting worse. While Turner says he plans to close the gap through cuts, what's been less apparent is how exactly he intends to pull that off, aside from saying Houston police officers' jobs won't be on the chopping block.
Houston has been hit hard by the oil bust over the past year and a half. The city's revenues from both crude oil production royalties and sales taxes have plummeted in recent months, creating a looming hole in the city's finances that Turner initially announced was $126 million. This week he said that the estimate has grown to $160 million so far, noting that the shortfall is very likely to continue to widen as the year goes on (and oil prices stay lousy.)
"I want people to fully understand the situation in which we find ourselves. There are very, very, very few sacred cows. Everyone has to come to the table, from City Council all the way out to people who are working for this city,” Turner told KHOU in mid-February.
The only part of city government off limits for cuts appears to be the Houston Police Department, which Turner has explained repeatedly is because the city has been about 500 police officers short for a while now. (He also just started a program to hire more officers.)
Thus, the budgets for the fiscal year have to be adjusted, and "everything is on the table" but Houston police officers' jobs, according to City of Houston spokeswoman Darian Ward. However, when we asked Ward what exact departments would be up for budget cuts and potential layoffs, she said all of them except Houston police — yep, turns out Turner's office is really not going to get any more specific than that.
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So apparently "everything" means every other city department except HPD — including Parks and Recreation, Solid Waste Management, Public Works and Engineering, the Library Department, Emergency Medical Services, the Houston Health Department, and the Houston Fire Department — will likely face cuts. Vacant city positions will be eliminated and at least 100 people will be laid off, Turner told KUHF.
What's interesting is that this includes the firefighters, even though Alvin White, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, says HFD is also chronically shorthanded.
Previous budget cuts have hit HFD's training programs, including the one that teaches firefighters how to run the boats used in the Memorial Day flood last year. White says the department can't reduce staff any further without seeing an increase in overtime since minimum staffing levels require at least four firemen per firetruck, so the reductions would have to come in equipment and training programs. “The problem is the city leaders know that when the bell goes off, the men and women of the fire department respond. We don't write tickets or pull in money for the city in some way, we just respond to the call.”
“We're both public safety employees. To come out and say the police are going to be safe but the firefighters aren't, that doesn't seem right,” White says. “Our men and women in blue have a hard time, and they'll tell you they need 500 new police officers, but we're understaffed too; we're short 400 to 500 firefighters.”